My name is Valerie Mendoza and I’m Director of Programs for Humanities Kansas based in Topeka.
My grandmother was an advocate for the elderly. She and others in our community noticed that those who were Spanish-speaking lacked services as they aged and in the early 1970s she helped to found a senior center for them where they could gather, socialize, and have something to look forward to.
Then, a decade later she initiated the building of an independent living complex for low-income seniors in the same neighborhood. So at a young age, I learned through her actions the importance of respect and dignity for the aged.
A few years ago, following in her footsteps I served on the board for the same senior center she helped open all those years before. Aging has also been on my mind as I get older, but it has always been something in the abstract, not in the detail that Atul Gawande describes in Being Mortal.
As I read his book I’m confronted with the nitty-gritty of aging. This includes my body’s limitations and changes. Gawande quotes an aging geriatric specialist on p. 51 “As you get older the lordosis of your spine tips your head forward ... so when you look straight ahead it’s like looking up at the ceiling for anyone else. Try to swallow while looking up: you’ll choke once in a while. The problem is common in the elderly.”
Being Mortal also forced me to think about aging in terms of loss of independence. This perspective was new to me. I’d, of course, known about retirement homes and nursing homes, but had not thought of them as places where, as Gawande states, “all privacy and control are gone.” He describes them in chapter 3 “Dependence” and even likens them to prisons more than once—your time is structured, you can’t do what you want when you want, but must adhere to an imposed schedule. You aren’t even allowed to eat what you want.
The other thing that strikes me about the book is attitudes towards the elderly. The author on p. 64 describes children basically disowning and abandoning their parents because their care is too difficult. Another example is the description of a young woman who was severely injured at age 21 due to a car accident and hospitalized for months. While recovering she was placed on a hospital floor with older women recovering from hip replacement surgery. The young woman noticed how the hospital personnel treated her differently from the older patients. Doctors and therapists worked with her all day long but barely gave a passing glance to the elderly patients. In Gawande’s words, “the message was: this young woman’s life had possibilities. Theirs didn’t.” (p. 96).
This differential treatment reminds me of a scene from the Netflix series Grace and Frankie starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The two play older, recently divorced women. In the scene I’m thinking of, they are in a grocery store trying to get the clerk’s attention so that they can check out. The 20 something male clerk ignores them and devotes his attention to helping a blonde, buxom female shopper instead. Lily Tomlin’s character, Frankie, declares that she and Grace (Fonda) have a new superpower now that they are older—invisibility. Rather than wait for the young, male clerk to check them out, the two proceed to shoplift the item they originally wanted to purchase.
Lessons from Being Mortal thus far: learn as much as you can about the aging process and be prepared.